Michael Pollan: High Priest of American Food
What happens when cultural traditions clash with healthy eating?
Culture is a powerful thing. Most cultures I look at have interesting rules to keep people from eating until they are completely full. In general, cultural rules about eating tend in the direction of health. Someone was telling me that in China, it’s high status to leave a lot of food on your plate uneaten. It’s a sign you’ve got enough money to waste it. That might be a good thing for health, but it’s a bad thing for the environment and for people who are hungry.
I don’t know that I’m in a position to arbitrate between all these cultural norms. I’m trying to build some new cultural norms as a counterweight not against any particular culture but against the marketing messages we’re getting from advertising and the portions in restaurants. There’s a powerful narrative about how to eat, what to eat and when to eat that’s being presented to us all the time by the food industry—$32 billion worth of marketing messages. I’m trying to use the various elements of culture I’ve collected to push against that and to offer another narrative that might be more conducive to health.
Why have television channels such as The Food Network become popular?
I talk in Cooked about what I call the “cooking paradox.” Even as we’re cooking less and less ourselves every year since the mid-1960s, our interest in cooking has grown. There are millions of people who spend more time watching other people cook on TV than cooking themselves. I think there are a few things going on with that. We miss cooking in our lives. We all have warm memories of people cooking for us as kids and standing in the kitchen watching these transformations unfold. Even scrambling an egg is an incredible transformation to watch—I remember being transfixed by that as a kid. There’s something about cooking that goes really deep. We like the smells, we like the senses, we like the love represented by the generosity of someone cooking something that we like to eat. We don’t have this in our lives so much anymore, so we get it where we can. We go to restaurants where they cook out in the open, we watch shows on TV and we fetishize chefs on TV. I’m suggesting it’s even more gratifying to do the cooking yourself.
What do you mean when you say that ordinary Americans can use cooking to fix our food system?
The person who does the cooking has a lot of influence and freedom of action in a way that the mere eater of food does not. If you’re buying processed food, that’s a black box. You don’t really know what’s in it. For example, they have to put country of origin information on meat and fish if you’re buying them in a store. But as soon as you buy fish sticks or some processed food from the same material, that information is not disclosed.
The person who’s cooking, who’s handling the food, has an appreciation that this isn’t just protoplasm. This is an animal; this is an animal’s muscle. The cook starts to think and care about, “I wonder how that animal lived and died?” “Where did it come from?” The cook can think, “Do I want to buy local, organic or humanely raised?” That’s where choices lie—with a person buying ingredients, not processed food. The cook has the power to vote with his or her fork in a way that’s much harder for the eater to do.
[Essayist and farmer] Wendell Berry famously said that eating is an agricultural act. And he’s right, but the eater’s doing that act in the dark, to a large extent, whereas the cook is doing that in the light of day and can make some good judgments. People who are approaching cooking in this way are changing the food system. The incredible growth of organic, local and sustainably farmed food is coming from people buying ingredients, not boxes of pre-cooked food.
How can people cook this way if they’re short on time and money?
We have to be prepared to invest even a little more time or money—but not necessarily both. Cooking is incredibly economical. People lose sight of the fact that when you cook—especially if you cook regularly—you can eat beautifully, because you’re doing the work yourself and can afford to buy better-quality ingredients. Time is the harder issue. Many people feel that they don’t have the time—and some people don’t. It depends on your situation. I always ask people a few questions to see if they really don’t have the time—if they’re working with an awful schedule—or if it turns out that it’s just not a priority for them and that they are finding time to go to the gym every day, go to a yoga class and watch four hours of television. Then it’s a different question—a question of priorities.
My case in Cooked is that cooking is important enough to our health, our happiness and the well-being of our families that it’s worth making it a priority. In the last 15 years or so, we’ve found two hours a day to surf the Internet outside of work because we decided it was important to us. The things we can’t find the time for we’ve decided are not so important. It’s up to everyone to look at their own time budget to see if it really is a crunch, or if they’d rather be watching television, answering email or going on Facebook. I can’t answer that question for people, but I’d suggest taking a look at how you’re spending your time. The average American still has, after work, after sleep, six or eight hours of what is called leisure. I just find cooking is a very good way to spend some of that leisure time. It’s rewarding, not to mention all the benefits of good health that flow automatically from home cooking.
Are you suggesting that women return to the kitchen?
I’m sure it grates on some women’s ears, but I’m not saying women should spend more time in the kitchen. I’m saying everyone should spend more time in the kitchen. It has to be shared. We have to go back and finish the conversation that started during the feminist revolution in which women said, “If we’re working, it’s not fair that we have to do all the cooking, cleaning and child care.” Fast food came along at just that moment to abort that conversation. Fast food let men off the hook. Kentucky Fried Chicken likes to say that it liberated women, but really it just freed men from having to do anything else.
To some ears, saying we need to cook sounds retrogressive. But I’m saying it’s progressive in a lot of ways. We can’t go back to the way it was, which was women stuck with the whole burden of cooking and often doing it alone in a nuclear family. Women are now 40 percent of the workforce. The challenge is to get men and children into the kitchen. We’re also letting kids off the hook on chores these days in a way that we never used to. We’re so concerned with their success that as soon as they’ve got a lot of homework, we back off and say they don’t have to set the table or take out the garbage because we need them to succeed in school. I think that’s a mistake, because learning how to cook and how to contribute around the house is vital to their success and health long-term. For kids to leave home without the skills of how to cook and how to take care of themselves is irresponsible.
What kind of meals do you prepare and eat in a typical week?
We eat a lot less meat than we used to. My reporting on meat and the time I’ve spent on feedlots and factory farms has made me very choosy about the kind of meat I eat. We’ll only have meat twice a week now, and I really enjoy it when we have it. We have a lot more vegetarian dinners. We eat a lot of fish, lots of leafy green vegetables and a lot of whole grains—whole grain pasta and brown rice. We cook more than we used to, more nights than not. And we eat pretty simply. During the week, most of the meals we eat we can put together in half an hour, 45 minutes.
The other way we eat is to make a lot of certain things. We had salmon last night, a really beautiful fish from the local waters. We made twice as much as we needed, and then tonight we’ll have a salmon salad or we’ll put salmon over pasta. You don’t have to make a big meal every night. If you figure out a way to have one meal in effect feed the next meal—roll over into the next meal, figure out clever ways to use leftovers—that can save you a lot of time. And many foods are better the next night anyway.
Do you have a favorite Jewish food from your childhood?
I like a lot of Jewish food—I don’t think I have just one favorite. Latkes are pretty great. And I have not had it in years, but my grandmother made stuffed cabbage that I loved. It was stuffed with beef and raisins and a lot of other stuff.